By Mike Cranston
CHARLOTTE ó John Fox is a man of routine and favorite sayings. One is the phrase heís used for nine years after Carolina runs the final play of practice and he wants the players to gather around him.
ěEverybody up!î Fox yelled in Wednesdayís chill for one of the final times. todayís season finale against Atlanta will be his last game coaching the Panthers.
ěThis is not new news. Itís a finishing and itís kind of been knowledgeable for a couple of years,î Fox said after the workout, refusing to get sentimental. ěWeíll just leave it at that.î
Itís been a long, awkward, miserable year for the secretive Panthers. While owner Jerry Richardson hasnít publicly said he wonít try to retain Fox ó Richardson hasnít answered questions from reporters in almost three years ó itís one of the worst kept secrets in the NFL.
Richardson declined to extend Foxís contract after Carolinaís blowout loss to Arizona in playoffs following the 2008 season. It was the beginning of the end for the franchiseís winningest coach, whose contract expires Feb. 1.
And while Fox inherited a 1-15 team in 2002 and had it in the Super Bowl two years later, his tenure will end with the worst season of his 21-year NFL coaching career. The Panthers (2-13) have already locked up the leagueís worst record and No. 1 pick in Aprilís draft.
ěIím not really in a reflective mood at this stage,î Fox said, ěbut Iíll be able to walk out with my head high and be able to look in the mirror.î
Foxís finale could get ugly.
The overmatched Panthers, who have the leagueís worst offense and managed 119 yards in a 27-3 loss to Pittsburgh last week, have the unenviable task of facing Atlanta on Sunday. The Falcons (12-3) are coming off a loss to New Orleans and need a win to clinch the NFC South and the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
In a typical Fox fashion, he seized on Minnesotaís upset of Philadelphia Tuesday night as a motivational tool in a team meeting Wednesday morning.
ěItís been difficult to come in and practice every week, but with coach Fox, he motivates you to come in and practice,î cornerback Richard Marshall said. ěHe motivates you to come in and play hard, play full speed for him. Thatís something that you can respect.î
Several players referred to Fox as tough, but also a playerís coach. That bond was evident when Fox got emotional as players presented him with the game ball after beating Arizona in the final home game on Dec. 19.
ěBeating the Cardinals at home was a huge game for us, his last home game,î said left tackle Jordan Gross, Carolinaís lone Pro Bowl selection. ěThis game is big. It means a lot to the Falcons and it means a lot to us.
ěWe havenít had a lot of games that had a lot of weight on them and this is one that does. So itíll be fun to go out there and give it our best and if we win send out Fox on a high note.î
The 55-year-old Fox lost a heartbreaker to New England in the Super Bowl, reached another NFC championship game and had another playoff team. But Fox was never able to string together consecutive winning seasons and now has presided over a horrible final campaign in which heís had a clear rift with management.
The first signs came in April when Fox didnít appear with general manager Marty Hurney to speak to reporters after the draft. He later said safety Chris Harris was traded because the team had ěa budget.î As the season spiraled out of control, he referred questions to the ěpersonnel department.î
ěWhen youíre in this business and you have things go the way they have, of course there are going to be differences of opinion,î linebacker Thomas Davis said. ěCoach Fox is a guy that definitely wants to win football games and heís all about winning. As a player, you want a coach whoís like that.
ěUnfortunately for us it didnít happen this year. We didnít get a lot of wins and weíre sitting with the No. 1 pick in the draft right now. So the personnel department, they have a lot of decisions they have to make. Thatís the nature of this business.î
Fox is 78-73 in Carolina, counting the playoffs. But this yearís debacle may affect his ability to get another head coaching job.
ěThereís a resume in the NFL,î cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. ěHopefully, we can even make his resume look better.î
Fox declined to talk about his future. He didnít even want to reflect on going through his final Wednesday practice, always the most intense of his regimented week.
ěI have a lot of Wednesdays in 21 years,î Fox said. ěThey all look kind of the same to me.î
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